Sam Smith's smash "Stay With Me" helped him become the breakout male pop star of 2014, and with six Grammy nominations, he's only gaining steam. Rolling Stone associate editor Patrick Doyle visited Smith in Atlanta and London – where just a couple of years ago the singer was working as a barback in the city's financial district, eating customers' leftover fish and chips for dinner – as the singer anxiously prepared to launch his first-ever arena tour, for his most in-depth feature yet.
In the cover story (on stands Friday), Smith, 22, details his often-painful past, from being bullied for his sexuality to watching his parents' marriage fall apart. Smith also played music he's written for his next album, which he wants to be "more raw and more honest than my first." RS spoke with famous fans like Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga, who shared their favorite stories about Smith's larger-than-life voice and endearing personality. "People just want someone real to listen to," says Swift, "And the vulnerability Sam is willing to project comes off as bravery, because it's authentic."
Our cameras followed Smith on a bizarre trip to a dentist's office for our cover shoot and captured a hilarious conversation in the car ride over, where he reminisced about his first-ever show in New York, for 100 people at the tiny Mercury Lounge (he was playing Madison Square Garden later that night). Watch as Smith jokes about his Grammys diet ("I prefer food to music and sex... and my family"), then check out five revelations from the cover story:
Smith is tired of being tagged the "male Adele."
Smith calls Adele "my Michael Jackson" – he's been a fan since he was 16 – but says, "We're very different, and I feel like the constant comparisons might piss her off." He adds, "It just annoys me that people can't digest two pop stars singing really personal songs who don't look like normal pop stars."
While Smith aims to change perceptions of what a typical pop star needs to look like, he has his insecure moments.
"I just want to lose weight for the Grammys, if I'm honest," says Smith, who is currently on a cayenne-pepper juice regimen ahead of the biggest night of his career. "I'm just very body-conscious. Sometimes I'm really proud that I don't look like other pop stars. But there's also moments where I'm like, 'Ugh, I wish I had abs like Bieber.'"
He wouldn't mind losing a Grammy — to Beyoncé.
Smith is a longtime Beyoncé superfan; he's been known to sing "Drunk in Love" in the shower and knows all the moves from the video. He's facing off against Bey in the Album of the Year category, and Smith insists he'd rather see his hero win. "She deserves it way more than I do," he says. "I'd be embarrassed if I got it over her. If I got it, I'd give it to her."
His first experience with heartbreak still makes him cry.
As a young teen, Smith wrote a "really intense" love letter to a popular, artistic kid two years older than him. The student turned out to be straight, but he wrote a long, thoughtful letter back, saying he only saw Smith as a friend. "It makes me emotional, actually," Smith says, his eyes clouding up. "He looked out for me for the rest of school. He just made sure that if anyone took the piss out of me, he would stick up for me. He could have made it hell for me, you know?"
He was bullied after coming out.
Smith maintains that his childhood was happy "80 percent of the time," but he details several painful experiences he had growing up. Once, as he was walking through his small hometown with his dad, someone drove by and yelled "faggot." "I was just embarrassed that my dad had to see that, because I could only imagine how you feel as a parent. You just want to kill them. I was always embarrassed for the people around me. It actually never deeply affected me, you know?" The worst incident happened after he moved out of his small hometown. Soon after arriving in London, he was attacked while walking around in makeup. "I got punched in my neck, just out of nowhere," Smith says. "It wasn't the easiest."
Also in this issue: Nick Pinto on Albuquerque's out-of-control police department, Tim Dickinson on the Republicans out to destroy Obama's legacy, Rob Sheffield on Better Call Saul, Andy Greene on Hozier's unlikely rise and more.
Look for the issue on stands and in the iTunes App Store this Friday, January 30th.